Eiland's Online English Materials

Random Spark at the Blackwatch Pub, 2007
photo courtesy g. eiland

Lyrical/Musical Term List

The following glossary defines some of the musical terms, genres and movements of modern music from the 1900's to today. Given the narrow scope of an 18 week class, there will be some topics that are overlooked. Additions will be made as time and memory permit. Use these references as starting points for your research, keeping in mind that deeper explanations will reveal subtleties at these definitions do not. dates refer to inception of movement or it first recorded appearance. Regional references refer to dominant locales, but do not indicate the limit of the genre's influence. Origins refer to genre's roots at inception; as time passes, more outside influences permeate and influence a genre, such as the fusion of heavy metal and rap. For a much more advanced and specific discussion of music terms, see The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians on line or through The Citrus College Library.


  • Acoustic: instrument played without electric amplification; or music using acoustic instruments
  • Alternative: 1990's; informal name given to style of music based in structured rock and roll that flourished in and was centered in Seattle Washington
  • Americana: 1980's; folk and rock based music with emphasis on insight into American lifestyles, especially of east and midwest, both praising and criticizing contempoaray American culture and its icons
  • Anthem: a focal composition with or without musical accompaniment, that is designed to praise, especially used in politics and religion
  • Arpeggio: individual notes played over the melody, often as solo, used extensively in jazz and rock and roll, as well as bluegrass
  • Arrangement: modification of the musical composition from its exact original form while still keeping recognizable inherent qualities of the original


  • Ballad: song in which lyric tells story
  • Band: musical ensemble utilizing wood and horns, but not (bowed) strings
  • BlueGrass: 1930s? origin Western and Eastern Europe, centered in Appalachia; style of music usually acoustic in nature and utilizing complex vocal harmonies and improvisation, often associated with specific regional dances
  • Blues: 1910's? 1920s?….style of music based on structured rhythm and meter (16 note bar), African-American in origin, played both acoustically and electrically… name is derived from general tone of lyrics, which tend toward analyzing the harsh realities of life. See The Blues for more detail.


  • California Folk: early 1970s; origin in folk with touches of country, bluegrass, jazz, and psychedelia, mostly acoustic with limited electric influence; themes focused on California culture, including ecology, car culture and surfing
  • Classical: 1700s; origin in eastern and Western Europe, complex melodies with varying rhythms and sometimes indiscernible beat
  • Classic Rock: mid 60''s to early 80's; term given to music created between early '60s and early '80s, previously termed rock and roll, but covering a wide range of rock based musical styles
  • Consonance: sounds within a work that agree harmonically with each other and do not clash
  • Country: 1950's; folk music based, a generalized term that covers a now broad gamut of musical styles, incorporating everything from simple folk melodies to Blues to even jazz and classical influences, with lyrical themes running the gamut of life experience, but often focusing on rural themes and conservative values, Southern in influence and origin


  • Dissonance: sounds within the work that disagree harmonically


  • Electric: refers to music amplified with electric sound enhancement
  • Electronic: refers to music and sounds synthetically created using specially designed processors and synthesizers


  • Folk: 1900's; and based on folk music of Western Europe often focusing on reflections of life for immigrants and farmers and the rural working class, evolving into urbanized protest music during '60s and evolving into a broad gamut of styles that influence rock and roll, country and other musical approaches. See Folk Music for more detail.
  • Funk: 1970s; an offshoot of blues and soul, an electric style of music characterized by deep pulsing rhythms, emphasis on bass notes with themes usually centered around socializing and intimate relationships, North Eastern and Midwestern in origin although Los Angeles was also a focal point


  • Heavy Metal: 1980's; rock based music the roots of which are in hard rock, (more later)
  • Hip Hop: see RAP


  • Improvisation: music or lyric composed at the moment by the performer, used extensively in jazz and psychedelic music, as well as bluegrass
  • Instrumental: a musical piece designed with no lyric
  • Interlude: short musical piece used to link scenes in a play


  • Jazz: 1920's; derived from African rhythms, with various styles reflecting the urban East, the Midwest and the South, characterized by improvisational approach to melody, lyric and chord structure over a strong rhythm. See Jazz for more detail.


  • Libretto: the text of an opera
  • Lyric: the words in a song; the type of poem that tells a story or has a recurrent theme


  • Melody: series of notes creating the most recognizable structure of what people recognize as a song, often repeated throughout the song in a regular pattern
  • Modern: music written since beginning of the 20th century; music of contemporary time
  • Motif: the theme that runs through the piece


  • Oldies: early 1950s through late 1960s; term given to music of early rock and roll era, distinguished from classic rock in theme and instrumentation
  • Opera: a musical play, of which the lyrics are sung, which also utilizes props an costumes to tell a story
  • Orchestra: a musical ensemble that includes (bowed) strings


  • Polyphony: music that utilizes different sounds simultaneously, either to create single chords, or counterpoint to each other to create dissonance
  • Protest: various, 1950's-present; one of many groups of musical approaches that include popular music with a particular social commentary, usually advocating change from the status quo
  • Protest Folk: 1950's; northeastern (NYC); focused on social change involving race and economic issues, acoustically delivered and often quite polished
  • Protest Rock: late 1960's; east and west coasts, focusing on the myriad social issues of the time: race, war, drugs and general politics, more aggressive, less polished and more direct than protest folk, with more emphasis on electric rather than acoustic instruments
  • Psychedelia: late 1960's; a style of music originating in both England and on the West Coast of United States, based in blue grass, folk, and blues, usually electric, using dissonance and improvisation to reflect varying stages of human emotion and (sometimes) drug experience, such as confusion or serenity
  • Punk: late 70's; England, then eastern United States, rooted in rock and roll, stripped down aggressive and fast paced music with themes focused on social issues and politics, often intentionally vulgar


  • Rap/Hip Hop: 1980's; heavy beat and strong rhythm often with little or no melody, elctronic/synthetic instruments also often used; origins on streets of New York as rival gangs out-bragged each other in spoken rhyme...later in clubs sampled music was added; now there are west coast and east coast rap styles and the style has morphed into various permutaions incorporating many diverse influences
  • Resolution: moving from dissonance to consonance
  • Rhyme: repeated phonetic sound in lyric falling on regular beat
  • Rhythm: the cadence of the song and the pattern with which emphasis falls
  • Rhythm and Blues: blues and jazz based musical style characterized by "dance-able" rhythms, and light lyrics usually centered on relationships, but sometimes reflecting urban protest themes, especially in the '60s and '70s
  • Rhythm Section: common term for the underlying structure of musical composition…in modern American music, the beat and rhythm are established by bass and and drums
  • Rock and Roll: origin 1950s, based in folk, country and blues, characterized by structured rhythm and beat (1/4, 2/4, 4/4); lyrics originally focused on relationships and social interaction, now a broad term referring to a wide gamut of acoustic and electric music with various subjects and styles
  • Rock Opera: late 1960's; a musical piece comprised of thematically linked songs and often acted out, using rock music as well as a traditional orchestra


  • Sampling: 1960's; practice of using segments of previously recorded material to create new music, used sparingly in psychedelia during 60's, then used extensively in Rap music in the 80's , now used in many forms of popular contemporary electronic music
  • Solo: section of a musical piece in which one instrument increases in volume to become center of the work
  • Soul: late 1960's; electric music derived from blues with overtones from African American religious experience, including newfound Muslim experience, northern and eastern urban origins, two major themes: love/sex and social responsibility, strong presence in urban protest genre


  • Urban: in a musical context, refers to music and lyric that reflects the inner city experience and is often associated, but not limited to, the minority experience
  • Urban Protest: an offshoot of soul, refers to music and lyric that depicts the inner city experience and the minority experience in realistic terms of constant conflict, sometimes with a demand for a higher consciousness for both those in charge and those who live in the ghetto. See urban protest genre for more.


  • Word Jazz: spoken word utilizing rhythmic word play and often accompanied by non-melodic instrumental improvisation

Works Cited:

Creative music online dictionary of musical terms

Oliver, Paul. Blues. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed.
       S. Sadie and J. Tyrrell. London: Macmillan, 2001.

Pegg, Carole. Folk. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed.
      S. Sadie and J. Tyrrell. London: Macmillan, 2001.

Tucker, Mark. Jazz. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed.
      S. Sadie and J. Tyrrell. London: Macmillan, 2001.

© T. T. Eiland, January 2002
Last modified: September 2, 2009